On 18 June the question of whether art fairs are today’s grand tour was debated in the bookshop of e-flux’s temporary Kopfbau hub in Basel during the period of the Art Basel fair. Debating that art fairs were an apt equivalent were Karen Archey and Kilian Rüthemann, while on the opposing side Adam Kleinman teamed up with Jan Verwoert, who very kindly stepped up at the last minute when Juliane von Herz was unable to make it to Basel that day.
Kilian opened with praise for art fairs, which provide an important opportunity for artists to meet collectors, to know their market and to interact with it. He spoke of the artist’s role working in tandem with their galleries, and indeed proposed an alternative model for emerging galleries: that they should no longer rent expensive permanent spaces, but rather invest in touring the art fairs of the world, going there to unite with significant consumers and producers of art.
Adam on the other hand pooh-pooh’d the real prestige of art fairs. He took the example of Art Basel, mentioning the clock on the fair centre exterior as the sign that it is in truth home to a much bigger watch fair, a market that puts the art market to shame. If those on the Grand Tour were gaining knowledge of art as the predominant cultural form, this has now been overtaken by other soft powers such as Hollywood and Bollywood. He finished his opening gambit: “People went on tour to see adventure and go across the Alps and do all that kind of jazz. And in reality you know we have safari tours that CPAs and lawyers go on and go look at lions and make their tours with guides which is actually much more concurrent to the Grand Tours. In effect the only thing, if such a thing as the Grand Tour exists today, for a young person from an upper-middle-class background going out for adventure to learn about culture, it’s study abroad programmes from college and backpackers.”
Karen looked at the Grand Tour from the perspective of the most recent use of the term in 2007, when the Skulptur Projekte Münster, Documenta, Venice Biennale and Art Basel all coincided. Then a young undergraduate student she undertook the Grand Tour and did her best to see everything she could, or should, have. “I felt like it held a lot of cultural cachet, now I am a lot more jaded about it… In today’s terms I don’t think that the Grand Tour is necessarily even reproducible, based on the fact that the internet exists, so we can’t have these erratic experiences with music and art that’s tied to the fact that you can only see it in these cities. Because the Internet exists basically, you know, this pilgrimage is not necessary. So what the Grand Tour is, for example in 2007 was, the biennials and art fairs colliding, is an enlightenment on the context or social structure or economic structure that brings forth the production of art, but maybe not the art itself.“
First Jan echoed Kilian’s support of the idea of art fairs, being the places where artists sell their work and money can be made. Those who suggest otherwise are misguided. His challenge to the comparison between art fairs and the Grand Tour started with the idea that fairs, like the Grand Tour, can not only educate but also edify. “You don’t just get knowledge, you build a subjectivity, you send some rich kids around the Old World and with the hope that in the end they will become subjects, that was the idea, the idea of the Grand Tour. Of course you could be a little bit philistine and say, what subject are we even still creating here? Are we producing consuming subjects or what is the form of subjectivity that’s being produced on this tour?” But this was not his principal point, where instead he wanted to celebrate the “endless possibilities for misunderstandings” the Tour offered. Henry James described the adventures of Americans in the Old World, such as in The Portrait of a Lady beautifully. These experiences cannot be repeated unless there is the potential for misunderstanding, and “the initial protocol of the Grand Tour was so loose that people didn’t actually know what to expect, so there is also I think one of the birthplaces of aesthetical theory ... So lots of experimentation with feelings that are not actually specified or qualified, and I’m just feeling that today the Grand Tour, the protocol is clear, we all know where to go, what to expect, what to do with these experiences, so the possibilities for absolute emotional chaos and disastrous misunderstandings are seriously inhibited by the fact that these fairs follow such a clear protocol. So if there’s anything I would argue for it’s, I would definitely argue for cash, but I would argue against a protocol of professionalization that these fairs are bringing into the world and would strongly argue for a form of edification that might actually get close to the havoc and uncharted itineraries of the original grand tours.“
The resulting discussion circled ideas of art fairs as an induction into the art world, and whether this world’s power is opaque or can be accessed. Looking to the past, the speakers considered the different awakenings that also made the Grand Tour experience, not just a new sense of culture but identity and sexuality; the incoherence and confusion that were possible back then may no longer be attainable now we are ineluctably networked. There was some swapping of sides and no shortage of nostalgia, and the debate ended in a clear win for the opposition.